The cinematographer of choice for Eric Rohmer and Terrence Malick arrives at the 1986 Festival for a tribute.
Photo: Festival Artistic Director Peter Scarlet and Nestor Alemendros chat at the 29th San Francisco International Film Festival.
By Richard Parkin
“When it comes to lighting, one of my basic principles is that the light source must be justified. I believe that what is functional is beautiful,” asserted Nestor Almendros in his acclaimed autobiography A Man with a Camera. “I try to make sure that my light is logical rather than aesthetic.” From lighting Meryl Streep’s heartbreaking decision in Sophie’s Choice to capturing General Idi Amin Dada’s fanatical neuroses in A Self Portrait, Nestor Almendros has crafted some of cinema’s most memorable images. In 1986, the 29th San Francisco International Film Festival paid tribute to the renowned cinematographer, honoring his distinct naturalistic style in both narratives and documentaries. An international cinéaste with roots extending to film exhibition in Cuba, underground filmmaking in New York, and the cinema verité movement in France; Almendros would become the most sought after cinematographer of his era, working with directors from Roberto Rossellini to Jack Nicholson.
The Palace of Fine Arts bustled with cinephiles eager for behind-the-scenes anecdotes and insights into Almendros’s technique. Taking the stage with Edward Guthmann on March 26, 1986, the acclaimed cinematographer appeared both quiet and reserved, politely answering questions from the eager San Francisco audience.
“I like to work with friends,” Almendros explained to his audience during the tribute. That was a humble statement for a man whose friends include some of Cuba’s most accomplished filmmakers, members of the New York underground filmmaking school, nearly every director of the French New Wave and many of new American cinema’s revered image makers.
Once described by collaborator François Truffaut as “one of the greatest directors of photography in the world,” Almendros was born in Barcelona and raised in the shadow of the Spanish Civil War. His family fled Spain for Cuba, where the young cinephile helped establish a film society in Havana. With support from a Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Almendros screened a variety of foreign classics and obscure Hollywood B films for cinematically curious Cubans.
After studying film production at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome, Almendros relocated to New York. Determined to pursue filmmaking, the burgeoning cinematographer integrated himself into the growing local film scene. “I became a good friend of Maya Deren . . .who greatly influenced my career. In this same New York group I met Gideon Bachmann, George Fenin and the Mekas brothers. They published the magazine Film Culture, for which I wrote my first articles. If I had decided to stay, I probably would have become one of the underground filmmakers of the New York school,” Almendros wrote in his autobiography.
After a shortlived return to Cuba, Alemendros migrated to Europe imagining he could contribute to the French New Wave. “I felt that what they were doing had some connection with what I had done in Cuba, and it occurred to me that French cinema might have a place for me. A crazy idea, I now realize, in spite of the fact that, only by chance, it worked.”
In Paris, he screened his documentary People of the Beach (which had not won support from the film board in Cuba) where it was heralded as the Latin incarnation of cinema verité and invited to various European film festivals. While touring his film, Almendros participated on panels with Jean Rouch, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers and Chris Marker. Despite the attention, no one offered him a job. “I thought my moment had come, and I returned to Paris after the festivals thinking I would soon be working in cinema again. Nothing happened. No one offered me a film. I thought I would never hold a camera again.”
Forced to teach private Spanish lessons, Almendros was disheartened until a fortuitous meeting with Eric Rohmer and Barbet Schroeder. “I was present at the shooting of Paris vu par almost by accident. The director of photography on Rohmer’s sketch quarreled with him and suddenly left his post. Barbet Schroeder, the producer, couldn’t find a substitute on the spot. Then I spoke up, “I am a cameraman.” As they had no alternative, they tried me out for one day only. When they saw the rushes, they liked what I had done and I finished the film—a stroke of luck that happens only once in a lifetime.” After years of struggle, Almendros would spend the next 25 years serving as chief cinematographer for Eric Rohmer (lensing four of the six Moral Tales along with other films), François Truffaut, Barbet Schroeder and Robert Benton.
At his Festival tribute, when asked about his stylistic influences, Almendros responded, “I base myself very often on paintings. I try to get inspiration and ideas from painters for each movie I do,” citing David Hockney and Piero della Francesca as influences for his work on Kramer vs. Kramer. Throughout his career, Almendros referenced Johannes Vermeer, Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper in his lighting and composition.
Perhaps what spoke best for the cinematographer were the film clips that screened before his appearance. Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven stands today not only as one of the most beautiful films ever made, but also as a testament to Almendros’s collaborative spirit. Recreating the world of field laborers of the Texas panhandle in 1917, Almendros sustained Malick’s insistence on realism and authenticity. He avoided artificial lighting and relied heavily on sunlight, mirrors and firelight to create the aura of life in the early days of electricity. Almendros then turned to the Panaglide (a competitor to the Steadicam) to facilitate Malick’s improvisational style. The director encouraged actors to explore the set in their performance, requiring cameramen to move in all directions alongside characters drifting through wheat fields and lakes. Almendros’ collaborative work in Days of Heaven garnered a 1978 Academy Award in cinematography.
On the other hand, a screening of Improper Conduct, an account of the persecution of homosexuals in Cuba, demonstrated Almendros’ work as a director of documentaries and advocate of international human rights. Almendros’ directorial films drew from his life as a political exile and exposed human rights violations in Cuba. Confirming his legacy as a human rights advocate, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival established the Nestor Almendros Award for Courage in Filmmaking. No matter what his role in a production, Almendros worked with a commitment and determination that placed him in high demand among international filmmakers, actors and documentary subjects. In 1977 alone, he lensed an astounding six feature length films.
In spite of his success, Almendros remained self-effacing. “I realized that most [cinematographers] lie or exaggerate. Even when it is unnecessary, they love to make themselves more important, to justify their salaries. To make their work seem more difficult than it actually is, they turn up with their famous briefcases full of filters, gauzes, diffusers and sophisticated light meters, when the important thing is not what is inside the camera but what is in front of it,” wrote Almendros in his autobiography. “No doubt because of my individualist temperament I have always tried to avoid the folklore of my profession.”
Following his 1986 tribute in San Francisco, Nestor Almendros would photograph only five more films before his death in 1992. Though working at a slower pace Almendros remained in high demand, collaborating on two of his final projects with Martin Scorsese. At the end of his celebrated career this legendary cinematographer remained a devoted cinephile, reminiscing about the collaborations that would never be. “I would liked to have worked with King Vidor and Louis Malle,” imagined Almendros. “That would have been great.”